Local Karate School Takes on Pandemic

One of Many Local Businesses That Has Had to Get Creative

Aidan Heroux ('21), Orbit Contributor


It’s affected our lives in ways nobody would have imagined. For Todd and Kristen Keane, the owners of the Academy of Traditional Karate in Wilmington, their business had to change almost completely as they adapted to the COVID-19 rules.

In 1989, the academy started at the Trahan Elementary School in Tewksbury, and now they reside in Wilmington. They’ve been open for 31 years. For 30 of those years, the idea that one day they might have to teach and train through a video conferencing app never occurred to them. Why would it have? But once the world began to hear stories of a new virus beginning to spread its way across the globe, the Keanes knew that they would have to act fast if they wanted to keep their business stable. First, they had made the announcement that the annual tournament would have to be postponed. Not long after on Thursday, March 12, the Keanes made the decision to switch to training over Zoom, the now well-known video conferencing software.

We slept very little, we studied at nighttime, did tutorials on what the best medium to teach online was, and we investigated all types of software

— Ms. Kristen Keane

Ms. Keane said that they made a turnaround from in-person to Zoom classes in about 24 hours. “I think one of the key things for us is we obviously followed global news stories, and were aware of… (coronavirus). It didn’t have a name at the time, but we were aware of COVID by the end of January. We had some very serious discussions about how we might handle it. Neither one of us thought that we would have a shutdown, and here we are in December.” Originally, they thought it would be only two weeks before they were back to in-person classes. “We thought it was going to be two weeks, maybe it might last a little bit longer.” said Mr. Keane. “But it just evolved.”

The Keanes worked around the clock in order to ensure their students stayed training. “We slept very little, we studied at nighttime, did tutorials on what the best medium to teach online was, and we investigated all types of software,” Ms. Keane said. “It was very fast paced.” They knew from the start that they would have to be flexible, because nobody knew how long the “shutdown” would last. “I think our team executed it really well.” she added. The staff team at the Academy did a great job at rolling with the punches, as their job went from teaching classes and working with students in person to trying to do the same thing over a video call.

Mr. Keane explained: “We had never used Zoom, and we learned more about it; we figured out the breakout rooms which allowed us to give more individual attention, which was key, and maintaining our students, and then we had the challenge of communicating what we were trying to do during that period.” Students were all over the place. Some were too young to understand what was happening or to focus. One person might be on a phone, but another person would be on a computer. The lack of consistency introduced a lot of challenges. “We lost some people because of that, but then eventually people sort of settled in and it’s now a little bit steadier.” said Mr. Keane.

Originally, the Academy of Traditional Karate was only able to have online classes over Zoom. But through a lot of planning and preparations, eventually they were able to switch to a hybrid model, running both in-person and online classes simultaneously. The hybrid schedule began on Tuesday, July 7. But the in-person classes were vastly different from the way they had them before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, students were spaced six feet apart, class sizes were limited, and of course, everybody had to wear a mask. No contact was allowed either, which of course is a large part of karate training. But the biggest difference? The classes were now outside, instead of inside the karate dojo. While this wasn’t a large problem during the warmer months, as the weather began to get colder, the Keanes realized they would eventually need to start doing indoor classes.

This is a really stressful time, and people look to the dojo as their haven

— Mr. Todd Keane

Strictly adhering to the COVID guidelines, they were able to develop a way of doing classes indoors. HEPA filters were set up inside the dojo, used to purify the air as an extra level of protection against COVID-19. Of course, students were still spaced out, and spaces squared off with tape were put all over the floor. The space was limiting, as karate requires a lot of movement. It may not have been perfect, but it was the best they could do. The head staff of the Academy make the call at the beginning of the day whether or not to have classes indoors or outdoors. And classes are still run online for students who may not want to come in due to the fear of exposure to the virus.

Hopefully sooner rather than later, classes can return to normal. Ms. Keane had one final comment. “We think in long terms and we think in human terms. So our perspective when we were trying to figure out what’s the best way to help everybody was ‘how do we make it work for everybody as opposed to how do we just make it work for us as a business? How do we help our community?’ This is a really stressful time, and people look to the dojo as their haven. We help people to reduce anxiety, stress, to focus, and we wanted to make sure that didn’t get cut off just because we had to be socially distant.”